Fear of the water and how to overcome it

Presented in ASCTA Convention, Broadbeach, Australia, May 2000

Lecturer Ilkka Keskinen
Department of Sport Sciences, Jyväskylä University, Finland

Email: ilkka.keskinen@jyu.fi
WWW-homepage: http://users.jyu.fi/~ikeskine/index.html

In the course of writing my Master´s thesis in 1982 on swimming I noticed that after a 12-lesson teaching period everyone didnot learn to swim. When I was investigating why, I noticed that the biggest (80%) reason was fear of water, 10 % lacked muscular endurance, 7% had an illness and only 3% had motor learning problems. When I compared two groups: those who could put their face in the water at the beginning of the teaching period and those who could not, the difference in learning wash uge. Nearly all (95%) of the kids who were able to wet their face at the beginning of the twelve-hour teaching period learned to swim. Only 35% of those from the group who were too afraid to put their face in the water learned. It is a dramatic difference, but what does it tell us? It tells that some kids have problems in being in water and that it has anegative effect on learning to swim.

In this presentation I would like to examine some of the reasons for the fear of water or the phenomenon which is usually given this name. I shall also offer some possible ways of overcoming those so called "fears".

It is good to be afraid of the water: fear saves lives

If we were asked to jump from an aeroplane with a parachute most of us would say no. We would think of it very dangerous. Those who do it all the time would say that it is safer than walking on the streets. You have to know an environment before it feels safe. Of course it is the same with water. The best way to get to know water is a warm and shallow pool where you can safely play and test your skills with a trusted teacher or parent.

It is said that we have a self preservation instinct which is genetically programmed. You could say that it is a kind of guardian angel which protects us from dangers. You could also suggest that the diving reflex in babies belongs to this same instinct. It prevents the baby from breathing underwater.
Have you also noticed that many kids can swim in waist deep water but not in the deep end of the pool? Technically there are no differences. It is naturally a wise decision if you are not yet certain about your skills. So being careful is a good thing. It would be fair to say that Finnish men should be more afraid of water. It would save many lives. Nearly 200 men drown in Finland every year.

"There are monsters under the water surface and they will grab you"

When you talk with small kids you may find that they have a very vivid imagination. When this is combined with inadequate knowledge they may end up as strange ideas. There are underwater monsters or other aliens and fish that can bite even in swimming pools. One-five-year old child said that the reason why he does not open his eyes underwater is that he will goblind if he did. His friend´s older sister had told him this fact.
The strangest thing is that it is also parents who tell these weird lies to their own children. At least in Finland this happens. Parents of course have a good reason for this: they want to keep their precious child far from the danger of water. It is easier to tell lies than to go and teach their child to swim.
Adults too can have misconceptions about water. Probably the most common misconception is the idea that in water you sink.However in water you float rather than sink which is why it is very hard to stay under the surface.

What is the cure against such misconceptions?

Truthful information is, of course, a good cure. Before you can give it is advisable that you talk with those who areafraid of water so that you can acquire a good understanding of the kind of information they need. Another good remedy against uncertainty is the use of goggles because with goggles you can monitor the situation and find out the real truth.Do you see evil fish in the swimming pool? I don´t think so. What about sinking? Floating is perhaps the easiest thing to teach and certainly cures any ideas about sinking.

Water is unpleasant

Every swimming teacher is eager to claim that water and swimming are great fun. I think they are lying. Water is an unpleasant element. All your senses tell you this. First of all it feels cold and turns you blue. Secondly chlorineand salt irritate your eyes and in some cases you are practically blind underwater, especially if we usually wear glasses. The water gets into your ears and your hearing is disturbed. It also tastes bad and often it even smells bad and feels very uncomfortable when it goes up your nose. And finally when it goes into your mouth and you breathe it you probably think that you are going to die.
According to Huhtala´s Master´s (1999) thesis half of the 12-year-old children investigated found it disturbing toopen their eyes underwater, a third found it disturbing when water splashed onto their face and another third foundit disturbing when water went into their ears. Similar results were also found in Pellinen´s (1992) and Virtanen´s (1998) Master´s theses.
When I made my Master´s thesis in 1982 I thought that if a child does not want to put his face in the water he hasa fear of water. Now I know better. They simply do not like the water: it is unpleasant and it does not have to do anything with fear.
The strangest thing in our system of teaching swimming is the starting point. At least in Finland swimming teaching starts with a most unpleasant exercise: putting the face in the water with the eyes open. Usually teaching begins with an easy exercise and the hard ones come later. I would claim that we do not have do the hard and unpleasant exercises in order to learn to swim.

What is the cure against unpleasant experiences in water?

This is very easy. Let us provide children with swimming goggles or a mask. Did you know that swimming pros also use these? After this their eyes are no longer irritated by chlorine or salt and they are no longer blind because they can see underwater. Are you afraid of the dark? Putting goggles on is about the same as switching on the lights. The good thing about a diving mask is that it also locks the nose so that water can no longer get up it. Look at their happy faces when it feels good and they can easily explore the underwater world. But can you do this or are you using the "natural method" where all artificial aids (masks, goggles, floating aids, flippers) are forbidden? I know that some teachers believe in this natural method: to learn swimming the hard way or not at all.
A very important thing would be warming the pool up to 27-30 degrees Celsius. You would also see the faces of small skinny and blue kids looking happy. I think that this is only fair or do you think that swimming is only for obese and tough kids.

"True fear of the water"

Twenty years ago I really thought that all kids who act anxiously in water had a fear of water. I do not think so anymore. My guess is that only ten to twenty per cent of anxious children really have a fear of the water. Of course it depends onhow you define fear. My definition of fear is that it is a learned state of mind. Something traumatic has once happened tothem in water and they usually remember it. Often they would say that they have drowned or nearly drowned. The have falleninto a swimming pool or from a boat or a pier. Someone has pushed them underwater or some other accident has happened. The worst reason is when a swimming teacher has forced a child to do too difficult a task and something unpleasant has happened.
I think that these kids are in trouble because they know that water is bad and therefore talking does not help. They do not believe you. This group is the hardest to teach to swim but this is also the most grateful group if they learn to swim.One adult group of fearful swimmers even bought me a bottle of whisky when I taught them to swim. They must in deed havebeen very grateful.

How to cure the fear of water?

Basically the formula is very easy: the learners have to learn that water is not dangerous and that it can be a lot of fun. They also have to learn skills by which they can conquer the water.
First of all it means that the environment must be pleasant: warm water, a shallow pool and a teacher the learner can trust. Then the child should be allowed to use goggles or a mask and floating device if he wants to. If these conditions are met the real work can start. It is called desensitization. It usually takes time: perhaps ten to twenty lessons or even more. Desensitization in practice means starting with easy and non-frightening exercises in which the child can succeed. After the first exercises we choose tasks which need a little bit more courage but still keeping in mind that the child has to have a good chance of success. It is usually also a good idea to have other kids around so that the fearful child can observe the enjoyment of the skilful ones and play with them and so fears will be washed away with victories and happy moments. If we can not offer these opportunities we will not succeed.
If the child gets too old, let us say over 13 years of age, we may be facing a new problem. Fear of the water will alsoturn to shame about that fear and it usually means that the child will no longer participate in swimming classes and wewill have lost the battle. Fortunately some may come back twenty years later and join a swimming school for adults andwe will have a second chance.

Bathing suit may feel too revealing

When 13-year-old children were asked if showing up wearing bathing suit was disturbing 10% answered yes. I do not know what to do about this. Perhaps a discussion would help or taking girls and boys to swimming pool separately. In anycase we have to be aware of this problem.


Teaching swimming is not always easy. Sometimes it may almost seem impossible. Fortunately experienced swimming teachers have found good and also easy cures for most of swimming related "fears".
So let´s not be afraid. We can help them.

Page updated 4.12.2009